Every couple fights. Often one of the great shocks--and one of the great disappointments--of early marriage is arguing. Whether a couple calls it an argument, disagreement, quarrel, discussion, or fight, a debate about needs and expectations can get heated and intense, disturbing and upsetting. Usually the topic of the quarrel seems silly or mean, at least in retrospect. Often couples complain that their fights make no sense to them.
Fred and Sally Parke had been married less than a year when they came to therapy. The fight that precipitated the call to me had been about a relatively trivial issue, and neither was concerned about the original topic. During the course of their heated argument, however, Fred had got up and started to pace their small living room. Sally was frightened, and she tried to control her anxiety. Then Fred yelled something--neither could remember exactly what--and came closer to her. She panicked and ran to her car. The Parkes spoke on the phone the day after, but Sally wouldn't tell her husband where she was. She agreed to meet him at my office the next afternoon.
I had heard the story up to this point from Fred over the phone, and wondered what had happened to frighten Sally. Fred told me that he had never hit his wife, but there was a clear undertone of violence in his story.
They met in my waiting room, and I sneaked a look at their reunion before going out to introduce myself. Fred was a funny combination of contrite and angry as he tried to embrace his wife. She allowed him to touch her but was clearly uncomfortable. Was she frightened of him? Had he hurt her? I didn't know, but I knew right away that we had to set up some rules to protect her.
As they followed me to my office, I could feel their tension. Sally waited for Fred to sit, and then chose another couch, using the furniture to separate herself from her husband. They were an attractive couple, dressed for success. His suit looked well cut and expensive, and she wore her version of a power suit. They looked at me. I asked them to start, careful to look at both of them, so that I could tell who was elected as speaker for their crisis.
"I don't know what happened," said Fred softly. "All I know is that she left me for nothing. This is crazy." Sally looked at him as he spoke. She seemed unsure of how to respond. Fred looked directly at her. "What happened, Sal?"
He didn't sound guilty. Did that mean that he hadn't threatened her, or that he didn't think he'd done anything wrong? What had scared her?
Sally gazed at her hands, twisting them in her lap. She spoke softly. "You know my father used to hit me." He nodded. "He used to terrify me. He would stomp around and yell and then, when he'd worked himself up, he'd haul off and slap me in the face." She paused, then whispered, "You scared me."
Fred's face went white. "You thought I was going to hit you?" He sounded amazed. "I would never hit you. What were you thinking of?"
"I wasn't thinking. I just reacted. I was scared, and I bolted." Sally was embarrassed by her reaction of two nights previously, but it made perfect sense to her. She had needed to protect herself, and that's what she'd done.
"I don't believe this! I am not your father!" Fred's voice was full of anger. "Don't lump me in the same category as that man."
I could see what was happening here. Fred was going to get more and more insulted. Sally was going to withdraw when he didn't understand what was simple and obvious to her. This conversation would go nowhere. I intervened. "Sally, your father used to scare you and then hurt you." She nodded. "So when Fred scared you, you were afraid that he would hurt you, too."
"I don't know why. He's never threatened me. But I got scared. I'm sorry, Fred. It's not about you. I was just too frightened."
"Of me? Why of me? I never hurt a woman and I'm not about to start now." He sounded less angry but not yet calm. Fred was truly offended.
"Not of you. But right then I just knew I was in danger. And since then, I've been scared that I hurt your feelings. So I couldn't face you."
Now there were two issues on the table. The Parkes were not complaining of marital violence, but of her fear of being hit. They were also trying to figure out how to reconnect after a major blowup. How could Sally return to Fred? Did he deserve an apology? Did she? How could they repair the damage inflicted in this fight?
Fighting, like every part of a couple's interaction, follows rules that we learned in our original families. Sally "knew" that men hit girls when the men were angry, so she "knew" she was in danger as Fred got louder and more agitated. Fred "knew" that men don't hit women, so he "knew" that his wife was in no danger from him. But they "knew" different facts.
"Sally, when did you start to get scared?" I wanted to explore what had happened so that I could help them establish fighting rules to avoid a repeat of this situation.
"When Fred started stomping around."
"I wasn't stomping! I just moved across the room because I was upset! You really overreacted! This is crazy!" Fred sounded accusatory. I held up my hand.
"Fred, wait. You and Sally both need to know what frightened her. Neither of you wants to have another episode like this." I hoped he could keep his temper under control. Sally had the right to explore her panic without worrying about his reaction. He nodded, but I could see he was having trouble keeping himself under control. We would return to his feelings later. They both looked at me, avoiding each other's gaze.
"So what happened, Sally?"
"I was scared. I sat as still as I could, hoping he would calm down. But it didn't work. He got more and more upset. He looked so big. I felt my heart racing. Suddenly, I was on my feet and out the door. I just needed to get away."
"What were you thinking?"
"That I needed to get away. That's all." She sounded subdued and quiet. Her voice was almost a whisper.
Fred stared at his wife. "Did you really think I would hurt you?" He sounded astonished.
"I didn't think. I just reacted. Honey, I don't think now that you were going to hit me, but I wasn't
thinking. I was just so scared!" She was confused by her own reaction. "I never would have married you if I'd felt in any danger--but I was so scared. I couldn't think, not then." I noticed that she kept repeating scared,
a word that sounded childish coming from such a sophisticated woman. It made me wonder whether she felt childish as she recounted the quarrel. Or had she felt like a little girl during the fight?
I asked Sally to be specific. "What happened right before you panicked?"
"He started walking toward where I was sitting." Sally knew exactly what had triggered her panic. We had to start from there.
"You were OK while he was getting angry, until he walked toward you?
"Yes." She sounded firm and sure. "When he stood up, when he came toward me, I was just too scared to manage it. I knew he was mad, but I could listen to him until he came at me."
"I didn't come at you. I just walked over to you. You're acting as if I'm an abuser, as if I hit women, like your crazy dad!"
"But you can't come at me! I was too scared! You need to stay away when you're mad."
The conversation was stuck. The Parkes weren't listening to each other. Sally kept telling Fred that he had scared her; Fred kept saying that he wasn't scary. He was insulted and needed to change her perception of her danger during the fight so that she would acknowledge that he was predictable, safe. Sally needed Fred to understand that she had been frightened, regardless of her trust in him. They needed to recognize that they could have widely different opinions about the fight and still listen to each other.
"Wait," I said. "What if both of you are right?" The Parkes wheeled around to look at me. "I mean it. What if you're both making sense? What if Sally was scared and Fred wasn't scary?"
"How could that be?" Fred's voice sounded contemptuous. He glanced at his watch, as though he wanted to stop wasting his time with such a crazy therapist! Sally looked unsure but hopeful. She wanted a resolution of the debate, but she couldn't understand what I was getting at.
"Well, maybe Sally was just scared," I continued, "not because you're like her father, but because she only knows men through the example of her father. Maybe she does trust you, but when the stakes are higher, as they are in a fight, she reverted to what she knows deep down--that men are dangerous when they're angry. She wasn't accusing you of getting ready to hit her. She was assuming that any man, under stress, was hazardous. Fred, maybe it had nothing to do with you at all!"
Sally nodded. "I think that's right," she said slowly. "I didn't think about you being my Fred. You were just too scary."
"But that's not fair," Fred protested. He was right. Sally was responding to her husband as though he were another person, a threatening man from her past. It wasn't fair, but it was reality. She might be able to stop her instinctive response, but not immediately and not easily. What could the Parkes do until that time arrived? What about their next fight, and the ones after that?
The Parkes needed to establish some ways of fighting that would allow Sally to feel safe, even when Fred got angry. Fred had to be allowed to get mad and Sally had to be able to work with him when he was incensed. Each had to respect the other's need. They had to be able to struggle with each other without Sally disappearing. Fred had to be assured that he could get angry at his wife and not worry that she would leave him. They had to find some new rules for fighting, ones they could live with, ones that would protect them from an escalation to separation.
Creating rules for fighting is one of the essential tasks of early marriage. We have to find acceptable ways to disagree, to lose our temper, to vent our anger at our mate. Each individual comes to marriage with a set of expectations of what happens when fights occur; the rules are unspoken and often unshared. Sally Parke, for example, was trained to fight under a set of rules that included permission for men to vent their rage physically. Her husband didn't share this expectation, and was surprised when she applied it within their marriage.
It is a pity, but we do not create these rules by sitting down and negotiating them in a reasonable fashion. We do not tell our partner what we expect him to do in a quarrel, nor do we share what we want. Instead, we react instinctively, exploding and withdrawing according to our training. This training most often has been carried out in the laboratory of our original families We are usually unaware of its nuances unless and until it is strained by later relationships. So Sally did not know that she "expected" Fred to hit her--not until she was already scared.
Because the Parkes had no conscious awareness of what they unconsciously "knew," they could not anticipate their reactions and establish limits for their behavior in a quarrel. Sally could not warn Fred about her deep fears of angry men, and Fred was unable to prepare his wife for his pacing, a simple physical manifestation of his frustration. Each interpreted the other's behavior based on his and her personal histories. Even though they now knew what behavior might be expected in a future fight, they were still arguing about the meaning of their actions, rather than trying to solve the problems the actions caused.
"Wait a minute," I instructed. "Let's say that Sally is frightened, whether or not Fred is actually going to hurt her, even if she has no reason, at least in the present, to be scared. What do you do about it?" I addressed the question to both of them, recognizing that the problem was shared, regardless of where it started. In fact, our individual histories do create issues for the conduct of a couple and the couple must share responsibility for creating the solution. Though this situation may have been ignited by Sally's past, the resolution had to come from both Sally and Fred.
They looked at each other, silently. I could tell that my question had stumped them. Each was still ready to debate the validity of Sally's fears, but I knew that would lead nowhere fast. I rephrased my last statement. "How can Sally feel safe? How can Fred express his anger?"
Sally laughed nervously. "I've been thinking about this a lot since I left. I know what I want, but it seems silly. Absurd, even."
"What do you want?" Fred asked. He looked at her directly. "I will do what I can--I just don't want you to leave again!" Fred was setting his own rules now. He needed to be able to fight with his wife without the threat of her disappearance.
"I want you to sit down. To stay sitting down. I want you to stay still."
Fred smiled. "That's all? To stay in a chair?"
"Yes." Sally had been all right in the fight until her husband got up from his seat, at which point she felt threatened and scared. She thought about what would make her feel safe, secure. This was her solution.
We looked at Fred. Could he accept this? He smiled. "I can do that." He paused. "But I need to know that you won't leave me." He was negotiating what he needed--a reasonable exchange.
Sally looked uncomfortable. She shifted in her seat as she pondered his request. "I want to promise that. I really do. But I didn't know I was going to leave. I didn't think about it or decide to go. How can I promise to stay when I only left out of terror?"
"I won't scare you. Not again," Fred promised.
Sally was being very careful. She was unwilling to give Fred a guarantee that she might not be able to deliver. "I can try. I want to say I can promise, but I think I can only promise to try." I could see that this was difficult for Fred. He definitely wanted a guarantee. With a sigh, he nodded. Then he reached out his hand to Sally. He needed to touch her, to seal the bargain, to reestablish a working relationship through contact. She smiled and took his hand.Rules for Fighting
The Parkes had begun the difficult task of establishing rules for fighting. What makes this so hard?
We need rules for all aspects of our relationships, but possibly none is as important as those related to fighting. For our intimate quarrels, we need to know that we are safe, both physically and psychologically. We need to know how to start a fight and how to end it, what is acceptable to say, and whether words can be forgotten or forgiven. We need to know when and where a fight can happen, and whether it may be public or must be private. We need to know the meaning of silence, how to interpret it as thoughtfulness or rejection. And we need to know whether, even in the depths of rage, we are still loved.
Establishing guidelines for intimate conflict can be done quickly, but revisions often are made slowly. We tend to follow the rules of our original families, discussing only those aspects which are unshared with our mate. It may be better, however, if we find ways to discuss what we need and want at other times--away from an emotional maelstrom.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Happily Ever After by Betsy S Stone, Ph.D.. Copyright © 1997 by Betsy StonePh.D. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.